At the elm spring
five birds sat in the trees
hoping that the
coming year is filled
with All is well.
It was a scorcher today.
We ate ice-lollies in the office
and called it quits at five
only to find
the District Line had melted.
It really is too hot for any more words about this very warm day in London. Some say it has been the hottest day of the year. The weather forecast suggests there may be another day or two of similar intensity.
A couple of years ago I happened to write another poem about a warm summer’s Wednesday and being confined to an office.
And along with the District Line melting, my internet connection has been on a go-slow while preparing and uploading this post. Perhaps the heat has jammed its way into all the day’s component parts.
How’s the poetry going?
Is a giveaway question
on the pavement.
It signals you
have not read
Or otherwise you have,
and now on meeting
on the pavement
you wonder, this
that the poet
has written recently,
is any of it about me?
There is a post often shared on social media among the writing community that reads something to the effect of, “Do not upset a writer or they will kill you off.” Whenever I re-read it, I chuckle a little.
Of course, writers are not without fault and many (of greater wisdom than I possess) certainly look to their own foibles to create villains or draw inspiration for their work’s darkness. However, inspiration also comes from circumstances and experiences lived. Yes, for me there are some people’s comments and actions that have spurred particular imaginative turns. This works best when the initial situation proves a spark for an augmented parallel vista, such as in my recent series of short stories (see
Gone are the cars
Running in the wood
I don’t expect most of the people who engage in daily small talk with me to be avid followers of these blog updates, though I do suspect (and can attest, from being asked) that when they do read my work, there is curiosity as to whom or what it might reference.
So here’s a clue: there just might be something I’ve written ‘about’ you.
I have also written about small talk before.
Word amphibians hold the real treasures
felt in the veins. But we talk more, more.
Make more words known to each other.
Chime this topic. Ring out that story.
Wring out absolutely the whole truth.
While the word amphibians live in those tones;
they also swim in the extract of transmission.
I wrote the usual mini-essay to accompany this poem and on re-reading decided to leave it out. I am quite certain you have had your own experiences of word amphibians.
Here is another short story completed for the exercise of completion. This tale developed in response to a balloon in a florist’s van.
I’m also love to hear your ideas for story prompts. Please share them with me by dropping a line below.
Harry arrives at 11am to pack the orders for afternoon delivery. His daughter, Sam, now owns and runs the florist’s shop, but he still goes in Monday to Saturday to fill the van with hand-ties and bouquets. It gives him a reason to be out and about during the week and handing over people’s greetings and wishes have always been his favourite part of working in the business. The daily deliveries allow him to still be part of this.
It is a Thursday morning like many others, with the exception that this promises to be the first warm day when spring turns toward summer.
Sam puts down the ‘phone.
“Liz, we have an add an extra hand-tie plus balloon order for late-morning delivery. Do you have time, or should I arrange it?” The ‘phone rings again. At the same moment a customer steps in with a pot of ornamental tomatoes from the display outside.
“Seraphine’s Flowers. How may I help?” Sam answers the ‘phone and smiles in acknowledgement at the customer. At that moment, Liz steps forward from the arranging counter to handle the plant sale. In a day there would be long lulls and then a cluster of requests and sales would occur at once. Between 9.30 and 10am is one such busy time.
The customer leaves with her ornamental tomato wrapped in bright red paper and tied with raffia. Liz turns back to the arranging counter. Sam tears off the receipt for the card sale over the ‘phone.
Liz picks up on their interrupted conversation, “The hand-tie. I can do it.”
“Thank you. And I’ll start this new order.”
They have three new arrangements to prepare, and two from the day before are waiting in the cool back room. When the weather is cooler they line the bouquets at the shop front, where they serve the double purpose of sales temptation and decoration. But the temperatures have been rising this week and last night they set the arrangements under a shelf in the back to keep them fresh. No-one wants to receive wilted, half-dead flowers.
“Hello, hello.” Harry saunters in, jangling his keys and sipping on his take-away coffee from the chain next door, “How many and where are we going today?”
Sam looks over the clipboard, “Two for Terra’s, two residential and an office delivery, Staffield.”
“Let’s get ’em packed in.”
He starts by carrying the first of the two back-room arrangements to Seraphine’s van. Harry’s seasoned. He started here when his mother, Seraphine, opened the store. He knows not to risk carrying arrangements by the strings of the colourful brand-name paper bags. In his early days delivering, he had done so. It only took two or three tumbles of carnations, roses and tulips across the shop floor before he realised the danger of seeming convenience. Carrying two or three arrangements also seems another convenience. Usually two is do-able, but three – again, hardly worth the risk, both of stock and in terms of the time it would take to re-do the bouquet. With great care, he carried the second bunch from the back-room. Sam and Liz bring the other flowers through.
“If that’s it, I’m off.”
“Take care, Dad.” Sam calls out to him.
“I will. And bye Liz. See you tomorrow. ”
Harry has until 3pm to deliver the flowers. That is the goal he sets himself and he usually manages it with ease. If the orders are local and there is someone to sign for each, he can complete the day’s route by lunchtime. He estimates that today might take a little longer. With the roadworks near the hospital, he may be caught up for an extra half-an hour at least.
In the roadworks traffic, Harry entertains himself by tapping on his steering wheel to the radio. The signal changes. He needs to move into the far left lane. And from there he will turn right into Terra Hospital’s parking area. Check, indicate, check, prepare to change lanes. Harry thinks about lunch waiting at home and a gentle round of golf he might enjoy on this sunny afternoon.
Almost everybody in the city is distracted by the warm, clear weather. The driver in the lane alongside Harry receives a text, ‘Beautiful sunny day. All good.’
Playing the messenger had always been Harry’s favourite part of the business. Doing the deliveries still gave him great pleasure, which is why Sam had not employed someone else. She loved seeing her Dad every day and he enjoyed being connected to shop.
Today promises to be the when spring finally thaws. The ‘phone rings. Sam answers, “Seraphine’s Flowers. Good morning.”
“One pretty pink hand-tie, plus a matching balloon to be delivered to Terra’s Hospital Maternity Ward. We’ll have it delivered early this afternoon. Our pleasure.” Sam turns to her assistant, Liz.
The driver in the lane alongside Harry receives a text, ‘Beautiful sunny day. All good.’ He decides to reply to the text; loses attention for a split second. The car catches the florist van’s sliding door and plunges into the flower arrangements. The helium-balloon detaches from the pretty pink hand-tie and floats off over Terra Hospital, taking CONGRATULATIONS into the sky. On impact, Harry’s body suffers such shock that he has a heart attack.
If you were a beast and it was May,
I would say
Listen to me, you golden beauty,
we must walk through those flames.
Do not fear. Shhh, calm,
calm your hooves. Calm your trample, trampling.
Look at me.
With my hands to the muzzle
I lead the prosperity of my summer yield,
garlanded in cowslips, buttercups and wild daffodils,
through the Beltane flames.
Afterwards, I sweep up cold ash and protection for you,
cold ash for me and mark: here, our foreheads are signed
to welcome prosperity.
It is May, and livelihood is not a golden beast with deep eyes
left to summer fields and prophecies. The bonfire –
a stupid superstition swept away.
It is May, we step through cables, then through screens
and the unseen marks our foreheads.
Out of curiosity, over the bank holiday weekend I looked up details about May Day festivities. I wanted to unravel the relationship between pagan May 1st festivities and the International Workers’ Day association. The latter stems from the Haymarket Riots, confrontations between labourers and police in Chicago during May 1886. These pivotal events led to the institution of International Workers’ Day (for more details read here). However, it was the descriptions of the pagan, Gaelic, Celtic Beltane festivals that captured my imagination. I have relayed the captivating information (i.e. vivid scenes) to almost every friend, associate and family member with whom I have had a conversation during the last couple of days. Now, dear reader, I have incorporated the fascination into a poem for you.
One of the practices during Beltane was to usher cattle, beasts that provided the livelihood for the people of the settlement, between two large bonfires. The beasts were sometimes garlanded in yellow May flowers. Ash from the bonfires was considered sacred, so it was swept up and used to mark the cattle. In some instances, it was cooked into food (such as oatcakes).
The difference between our present and times past is a recurring theme at the moment. It surfaced in the recent poem ‘Beacons for the utterly lost‘ and my dystopian short-story ‘Gone are the cars‘. Admittedly in ‘Livelihood’ the ‘past’ is a constructed and sanitized pastoral one. It is possibly more like the mythical pastoral that crops up in Friday’s short story, ‘Running in the wood‘. Furthermore, I am also aware that not everyone in our current times is beholden to cables, screens and whatever those ‘unseen marks’ on the foreheads might be.
However, the screen-bound, desk-bound condition is for many the locus and source of a contemporary livelihood. As an artist, the fascination is in the stories that are to be found in the workplace experience, including, as this poem explores, how own might coax a livelihood through flames, or mark it for prosperity. The Beltane acts might strike sceptical office workers as ritualistic hooey, yet there are contemporary equivalents. Organisational targets and projections, meetings and elaborate strategies – all those documents, spreadsheets, published reports – make rational, tangible sense today. In seven hundred years’ time, will Trello boards look like the wild flower garlands on a dairy cow? This may seem an outrageous comparison, for current office methods underpin efficiency and the measurable results prove as much. The movement of money proves as much.
In the days of Beltane festivals, there were fewer bank accounts. Instead there were hungry stomachs to fill. The marked dairy cows provided for the celebrants and then their children’s children, who went on to produce more children whose descendants perhaps send emails and hit targets in this contemporary age.
It bothers me a great deal that all that might be left of my writing output will be a couple of filed applications, some reports and a virtual mound of emails. All this will be destroyed when my workplace footprint has run its course. Whenever I have produced written content for job purposes, it has served such a small audience. Sometimes it has served barely any audience at all. While the same may be said for my posts (and the growing pile of miscellaneous unseen material), it is my hope that eventually my writing will be of substance such that it will endure. It is my hope that writing I produce will touch people in the future and that something endures as good, worthwhile craft. It is my hope that I shall be able to send meaningful work of beauty and value into a realm beyond my present time.
In the interim, practicalities require that I must also earn my livelihood. May rent must be paid, groceries need to be topped up and my cracked tooth needs to be seen by a dentist. I am on the search for a new position of paid employment and watching the bank balance decrease. Once again, the tension between desk-bound livelihood jobs and having head space to create gnaws at me. I am both grateful for the creative bonfire and terrified by the prospect of a summer devoid of a harvest, so my next writing task is to revive my CV.
P.S. If you enjoyed the mash-up of Beltane bonfire and office job, you may enjoy my poem about El Dorado’s operations meeting.
When others mocked you I stood firm and said,
Your vision would be for our betterment.
In happy fealty I volunteered,
Believing your requests would teach a path
Worthwhile for more than monetary gain;
I thought it my apprenticeship’s terrain.
Your fair-minded way inspired me.
I trusted the value of your guarantee.
This confidence in words proved error, mine.
Onward, I’ll loyalty with care assign.
Towards the end of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, there is a scene in which the draconian and exacting fashion magazine editor-in-chief, Miranda Priestly, passes over one of her dedicated Runway employees for a recommendation. Nigel, the employee, has served many years in the hope that his efforts at Runway will be noticed by Miranda and provide a stepping stone to another opportunity. I reverted to a Wiki synopsis for these full plot details, for it is Nigel’s comment to Andy (the protagonist of the film) that has long played in my mind. Although disappointed, Nigel declares that his loyalty to Miranda will one day pay off.
Perhaps Nigel was raised, as I was, by a mother whose cue at such moments was, “Everything comes to those who wait.” It is not surprising that sanguine expectation has filtered into my consciousness. For some reason, I have paired this with the view that loyalty will be rewarded. (Can you tell that my ancestors were possibly the peasants rather than the overlords?) Perhaps allegiance should be its own reward. I have not evolved to that level of enhanced consciousness. I still dedicate my time, energy, working hours, money, talents and intention in the hope that there will be outcomes and that these outcomes will advance towards grand triumphs. If not immediate successes, at least the next opportune stepping-stone.
On too many occasions (and I recognise at least two in my life currently), I have held quiet admiration for someone with whom I have had a working relationship. Let me qualify that these working contexts span more than the workplace; they have included my days as a student and aspiring academic, groups and organisations where I have been involved because of a conviction or interest, even interesting people I have met who I hoped would notice me. I have wished, yes sometimes as desperately as a preteen with a crush, that some of these more experienced war-horses would offer to mentor me. Or, at the very least, my dedication would be acknowledged. In more than one instance, I believed that I offered a great deal of myself: unpaid time, tactful allegiance, trust rather than explicit demands. My view of my efforts may be biased, but the devotion was true. And then circumstances unravelled. I am prone to idealism and intense commitment, so it is not surprising that I have found myself in similar situations at recurring intervals in my life. It would seem I have yet to learn those last words of my own poem, “Onward, I’ll loyalty with care assign.”
In one of the working versions of the poem the last line read, “Shall I loyalty with more care assign?” The construction touched me as self-doubting. Why address the reader with this question? Was this the speaker’s call for confirmation, yet again? Right now, onward, I need to weed out self-doubt. I started by cutting it out of the poem.
The connection between ardent fealty and self-doubt is not abstruse. Certain narratives of our contemporary society suggest that we can all do whatever we want, right now, and we should not doubt ourselves. Expecting someone else to hold the banner for your cause demeans your agency.
I prefer to convince myself that my expressions of sanguine loyalty were in support of a learning endeavour. For there is another narrative that advises you to follow in the footsteps of the peer, superior or colleague you admire, and you will learn the ropes. These are also the movers and shakers who will be able to recommend you and open doors. (This view may once again betray the residual foot-soldier, serf mentality.) The promise of such open doors trap Andy, the protagonist in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. After a year working for Runway’s editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly, Andy will be able to work at any magazine she desires. In the movie the trap plays out as the old Faustian deal in which you sublimates your own seemingly noble goal for someone else’s morally ambiguous agenda.
Andy rejects the Runway world and is eventually hired by another publication. I wonder if Nigel receives his opportunity. Does Miranda eventually reward his devotion? Or does he find the courage to strike out on his own, risking the withdrawal of Miranda’s endorsement and professional connections?
Re-watching TDWP clips on Youtube, especially the wonderful ‘Cerulean top’ scene, I realise how many lumpy sweaters I own. They make up a motley rainbow of grey, brown, pink and teal. While TDWP explores the ambivalence of someone caught in a Faustian deal, it drives home the point that the clothes make the character. If you want The Job, you must dress The Part. I, the character writing, am sitting in a pair of jeans, two sizes too large, and a black pullover, all pre-owned pass-ons from friends (and I’ll spare you how exactly my underwear has been re-stitched at its fraying seams). Rather than finish writing this post, I am tempted to tear through my drawers and closet and plan a wardrobe-revival shop tomorrow on Regent’s Street. Real-life enactment of this plan extends as far as googling interview outfits, work wardrobes and Banana Republic office-skirts (I locate the Regent’s Street store on Google Maps). But sense prevails, my emergency survival fund is not a wardrobe allocation for a life I do not have at present. For this brief time, while I search for the next Faustian contract, my time, money and talents are mine. My allegiance is to this craft; my loyalty is to myself. And my work wardrobe will be a pair of oversized jeans and a motley rainbow of lumpy sweaters.